Wednesday, March 18, 2015

in the hamlet of ferguson, nearly everyone is a wanted criminal


HuffPo |  This complete penetration of policing into everyday life establishes a world of unceasing terror and violence. When everyone is a criminal by default, police are handed an extraordinary amount of discretionary power. "Discretion" may sound like an innocuous or even positive policy, but its effect is to make every single person's freedom dependent on the mercy of individual officers. There are no more laws, there are only police. The "rule of law," by which people are supposed to be treated equally according to a consistent set of principles, becomes the "rule of personal whim." 

And this is precisely what occurs in Ferguson. As others have noted, the Ferguson courts appear to work as an orchestrated racket to extract money from the poor. The thousands upon thousands of warrants that are issued, according to the DOJ, are "not to protect public safety but rather to facilitate fine collection." Residents are routinely charged with minor administrative infractions. Most of the arrest warrants stem from traffic violations, but nearly every conceivable human behavior is criminalized. An offense can be found anywhere, including citations for "Manner of Walking in Roadway," "High Grass and Weeds," and 14 kinds of parking violation. The dystopian absurdity reaches its apotheosis in the deliciously Orwellian transgression "failure to obey." (Obey what? Simply to obey.) In fact, even if one does obey to the letter, solutions can be found. After Henry Davis was brutally beaten by four Ferguson officers, he found himself charged with "destruction of official property" for bleeding on their uniforms.

None of this is even to mention the blinding levels of racism, which remain the central fact of police interactions in Ferguson and nationwide. The overwhelming force of this violent and exploitative policing system is directed at the African American population. In 2013, 92 percent of Ferguson's arrest warrants were issued against African Americans, and black Fergusonians were 68 percent less likely than others to have their court cases dismissed. The racism is so blatant and comprehensive that the DOJ concluded that "Ferguson law enforcement practices are directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias." Considering the qualified and colorless language typically deployed in government documents, this is an astonishingly forceful statement.

Ferguson's racism has been central to the media coverage of the release of the DOJ report. But in a certain way, by focusing entirely on disparate racial impacts without examining the sheer scale of the brutal state juggernaut, one misses crucial facts. MSNBC listed as the DOJ's number one "most shocking" finding the fact that "at least one municipal employee thought electing a black president was laughable." But the existence of racist views in the department is not the most shocking fact, not by a country mile. Rather, endemic racism in policing comes standard. However, that racism occurs in the wider context of an ever-enlarging interlocking system of administrative bureaucracy and police violence. 

The other pitfall in analyzing the Ferguson report is to see it as being about Ferguson. There are 19,492 municipal governments in America, and the chances that Ferguson happens to be the worst are extremely slim. In fact, there is strong evidence that in the world of better funded, more militarized, more technologically advanced police departments, Ferguson is simply a high-profile case study. While the Ferguson nightmare may dwarf the problems in cities like Boston, American policing is so out-of-control that Ferguson-style practices can occur on at least some level in almost every department.

It's hard to believe, but the Ferguson police department's massive deliberate racism only represents one of its problems. The DOJ report shows not just a racist criminal justice system, but one in which the very act of being alive has been made a crime, and in which nearly every resident is wanted by the law at every moment of every day.